A Nun with a History of Sexual Abuse and Overeating Encounters Grace and Healing

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Like many who struggle with eating disorders of some kind, Sister Margaret can trace the start of her unhealthy relationship with food to being sexually abused at the age of three.

“In OA (Overeaters Anonymous) meetings, I hear the same story about sexual abuse. A friend of the family sexually abused me when I was three. I remember it very well and it was only recently that I found out that vomiting can be a sign of sexual abuse,” Sister Margaret said.

She remained extremely thin, often throwing up and not eating much, until the time she was around ten. Although in her late childhood she was able to eat and hold food down in a healthier manner, she continued to struggle in other ways with eating and food.

“At almost every age of my life I could tell you what I weighed,” Sister Margaret shared, pointing to her obsession with her relationship to food.

In her late thirties, she became concerned about her father’s growing addiction to alcohol and started to attend Al-Anon meetings. This marked her first exposure to 12-step recovery, and as someone with a deep spirituality—after all, she is a Catholic nun—she was struck with the power and beauty of the Twelve Steps and how they related to her Catholic spiritual life.

“The Twelve Steps are like the skeleton to the spiritual life, something that gives it shape and keeps you on track in the right direction,” Sister Margaret said.

Al-Anon helped her learn how to talk with her father about his addiction to alcohol and provided her with a basic knowledge of the steps, preparing the way for addressing her own addiction to eating. It was in coming to understand the Twelve Steps and the nature of addiction that she was able to recognize the meaning of a friend’s (a recovering alcoholic) comment.

“My friend told me, ‘Marg, if I talked about alcohol as much as you talk about food, I would be drinking.’ When she said that, I realized I needed to get myself to an OA meeting,” Sister Margaret said. “I went to my first meeting and I was floored because I identified with so many who were there, both those who were very overweight and those dealing with anorexia. I had those same impulses. And on the way back home from the meeting, all I could think about was the ice cream in the freezer!”

When she got home she threw the ice cream into the trash bin in what she considers her first act toward recovery. However, like many struggling with addictions know, the path to recovery can be fraught with setbacks.

“After a year I convinced myself I was cured and didn’t need the meetings anymore. But after two more years and with a change in ministry work, I started a new meeting to help a friend struggling with Bulimia,” Sister Margaret shared. “Of course, this also helped me since I was struggling again. Then, later, after another change in my ministry work, I didn’t like the idea of having to attend meetings for the rest of my life. So I stopped attending again, but within the next year or two I slid right back into my unhealthy habits with eating.”

After the regular starting and stopping, she eventually came to hold firm to the tenets of the Twelve Steps and now consistently attends meetings. At age 81, the life of recovery is as natural to her as her Catholic spirituality.

In fact, it’s her deep understanding of how the Twelve Steps relate to the sacramental life of the Catholic Church that led her to become involved in Catholic in Recovery, which began when she came across Scott Weeman’s book, The Twelve Steps and the Sacraments.

“I had been waiting for years for someone to have that insight about Catholicism and 12-step recovery. We need to reach out to our addicts as Catholics because Jesus gave his life for them and wants them in his Church. This understanding at CIR has been waiting to happen for a long time,” Sister Margaret shared.

She understands that these two communities have often had a strained relationship. Some Catholics in need of recovery refuse to engage in traditional 12-step programs because they are put off by talk of a “Higher Power” and the sometimes prevalent anti-Catholicism. And some members of traditional 12-step programs harbor deep resentments toward the Catholic Church and don’t want anything to do with it. While it’s certainly a complex and nuanced issue, Sister Margaret values CIR’s understanding that, in the right context, both the Catholic faith and traditional 12-step programs can offer the best form of recovery and healing when integrated.

Sister Margaret helped start a Catholic in Recovery group for those struggling with addictions and unhealthy attachments in Portland, Oregon, which just hit its one-year anniversary. They have been able to start a second General Recovery group and a Friends and Family of Addicts group as well. They also have plans to begin another Catholic in Recovery group for those struggling with sex-related addictions.

When encouraging those who are on the fence about joining a Catholic in Recovery meeting, Sister Margaret points to the ultimate model.

“Jesus gives us the perfect model in the Gospel of John. The disciples come up to him and ask, ‘Where are you staying?’ And instead of directly answering them, he tells them, ‘Come and see!’ And I would say the same thing to those thinking about joining a Catholic in Recovery group,” Sister Margaret continued. “You don’t have to stay or even talk if you come to one. Just come and see. People at CIR often do end up sharing at a very deep level because they feel safe in being able to talk openly about Jesus or about their anger toward the Church. So, ‘come and see’ what a Catholic in Recovery group can offer you in your own journey toward recovery and healing.”